‘Sleepwet’: what do you do online?

| Meilani Halim , Mathijs de Ruiter

In this series, our student writers ask other UT students about their opinion on a variety of controversial topics. Be it on a worldwide scale or a bit smaller, these students share their food for thought. This time: the Dutch law known as ‘de sleepwet’ that would allow the law enforcement to potentially track everyone’s online behaviour.

Photo by: NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Strong opposition to this law has been posed by many Dutch citizens and multiple political parties, culminating in the referendum to be held next week. We asked Wouter Waanders, a board member of Psychology’s study association Dimensie, and Gabriel Atanasov, a first year student of Psychology, to give their two cents on this law and its repercussions.

De ‘sleepwet’

The Dutch law, mostly called ‘de sleepwet’, makes it possible for the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands (AIVD) and the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) to intercept more internet traffic. These two services focus on recognizing and combating threats to the Dutch society as soon as possible. These threats can be terroristic or cyber attacks. The old law, which stems from 2002, is considered insufficient to monitor threats. The fact that the AIVD and MIVD can intercept for example WhatsApp conversations and emails, can have an impact on the privacy of citizens. Referendum held next week will decide if the law is passed.   

Do you think this law should pass?

Atanasov: ‘Absolutely not. The privacy rights this law would breach are unbelievable. If this law passes I would seriously rethink what I do online. It’s frightening to think of what information may be used against me one day.’

Waanders: ‘Surveilling a suspect is justifiable, but there should be a good cause to tap into citizens’ communications. Randomly picking and choosing anyone – or everyone – should be considered unconstitutional. There should be clear, written-in-stone selection criteria delineating the profiles of people whom intelligence agencies would be allowed to track, for example those who have committed crimes in the past. So the government would not be able to simply monitor anyone from your social circle or all the residents of a neighbourhood.’

Forming such selection criteria is tricky. Should a line be drawn between petty criminals and committers of serious crime?

Waanders: ‘All previous offenders should be on the tracking list, no matter the severity of their crime. If that doesn’t sit well with you, then don’t break the law. But then again, in the future the law could easily be stretched to the extent that people are tracked after every minor offense.’

Atanasov: ‘Perhaps a solution would be to require intelligence agencies to get a warrant to tap into someone’s communications, much like the warrant police officers must obtain before being legally allowed to search someone’s private property. I think people at least have the right to be notified if they are being watched.’

Waanders: ‘That would defeat the purpose of government surveillance, would it not? Once a criminal knows they are being watched, they are going to cease all criminal activity. Which is another reason why increased government surveillance would be futile: criminals will not just carelessly leave their crumb trails exposed – they will find new ways to go undetected, or stop using the internet altogether for their criminal activities.’

Do you believe that criminals deserve the same privacy rights you are trying to protect?

Waanders: ‘Of course not, but you cannot distinguish between criminals and law-abiding citizens unless you take a look at what they are doing – but that is quite the paradox, which is what makes this matter so tricky.’

But if people have nothing to hide, why should they worry?

Waanders: ‘There is always a risk when personal data is stored somewhere: it makes it easier for the data to be misused by parties other than law enforcement, even if officially that shouldn’t be possible. Besides, we don’t even know exactly what is being done with it. An analogy could be my insurance premiums being raised because my insurance provider gained access to my browsing history. Perhaps this is not the most applicable example, but the point I’m trying to make here is that there is a chance that things get stretched farther than intended, and the consequences always follow.’

Atanasov: ‘For important or public figures, or home business owners, there is a lot to keep private, even if none of it is of criminal nature. Imagine a businessman who works from home whose communications are tapped; he has a lot to lose if his information falls into the wrong hands. Furthermore, people would be gripped with paranoia over being constantly watched.’

Are you saying that protecting citizens’ privacy is more important than protecting the nation’s security?

Atanasov: ‘How much safer could it possibly get in The Netherlands? I am from Bulgaria, and compared to there the crime rates here are negligible. Of course every country experiences crime; it is impossible to stop all crimes from happening. But The Netherlands is already doing very well as it is.’

Waanders: ‘I fully agree; The Netherlands is a very safe country. If you want a country with no crime, you would have a totalitarian state with constant surveillance. The balance between privacy and security needs to be found, and this law crosses the boundary too far into privacy-breaching territory. The added security would not be worth the amount of privacy it would cost.’

If, by repealing this law to protect your own privacy, you allow the possibility of others to suffer at the hands of criminals who could have been stopped sooner with this law, isn’t protecting privacy selfish?

Atanasov: ‘I don’t think it is selfish. First you need to help yourself before you can care for others. Besides, is privacy not a fundamental human right?’